The state has asked southwestern Oregon counties to send five fewer prisoners total each month to state prisons in order to help avert an emergency prison expansion.

Southwestern Oregon needs to send four fewer male inmates and one fewer female inmate to state prisons per month to meet the goal, said Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert.

Unexpected growth in the prison population has caused state officials to consider an emergency $9 million expansion of the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras. Cutting back on the number of incoming prisoners by 25 men and six women per month statewide beginning in December could prevent that expansion, according to a November report by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The southwestern Oregon region is made up of Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Curry, Coos, Klamath and Lake counties. It uses 15 percent of prison time, according to the commission.

The state is divided into four regions, and all have been asked to send fewer inmates to prison.

The metro region — which combines the areas around Portland and Eugene — uses 61 percent of prison time and has been asked to send 15 fewer male prisoners and three fewer female prisoners, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Heckert said Jackson County already has programs to try to reduce its prison usage, including drug-treatment court and mental-health court operating as Jackson County Circuit Court programs.

Certain defendants who meet criteria can avoid prison time by going through drug treatment and following other conditions of drug-treatment court. If they fail the program, they can be made to serve time in the Jackson County Jail or are sent to prison if a sentence is longer than one year.

Mental health court, launched earlier this year, is meant to help address the mental health problems of some defendants.

With inadequate community-based mental health care nationwide, some people suffering from mental illness end up in the criminal justice system.

"In Jackson County, we do have some alternative programs we're using," Heckert said. "We're not sending as many people to prison as we otherwise would."

When prosecutors handle cases, they consider whether a defendant is an appropriate candidate for drug treatment court or mental health court on an individual basis, she said.

"We don't have a quota," Heckert said.

Not all counties are willing or able to offer alternatives to incarceration, she said.

"It is a complicated issue," Heckert said. "We can do a great job in Jackson County, but if other counties are not participating at the same level, we could have to build another prison."

She said statistics are kept on the number of people counties send to state prisons.

In 2013, the state took in 207 inmates from Jackson County. That number dipped to 196 incoming prisoners in 2014, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Statewide, 4,972 people were sent to prison in 2013, and 4,784 were sent to prison in 2014.

But that downward dip could be reversing. A short-term forecast released in October says more prison time than expected will be used, in part because of longer sentences. In 2013, the average length of stay in prison was 37.1 months, but that ticked up to 44.1 months this year.

Long-term forecasts predict the male prisoner population in Oregon will rise from about 13,400 this year to more than 14,000 in 2025.

The female prisoner population will rise from almost 1,250 this year to almost 1,330 in 2025, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

To pay for an emergency Deer Ridge Correctional Institution expansion, lawmakers have said they may have to raid justice reinvestment grants that go to counties and provide programs that help keep people out of prison. That could lead to more people going to prison, causing more budget strain and further cuts to county-based programs, Gov. Kate Brown warned last week.

The Legislature approved $40 million in justice reinvestment grants to counties for the current biennium.

Those grants help fund addiction and mental health treatment, transitional housing and other programs.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.